Geoff Bayliss’ article in the Church Times on the readability of liturgical texts in the Church of England has elicited a variety of reaction and comments I’ve seen on social media (which may say as much about those who’ve commented, as about the original article).
To hyper-paraphrase Bayliss’ article (derived from his PhD thesis on the subject) he explores how the ‘reading ability’ required to work through liturgical texts matches up (or doesn’t) against national studies of adult literacy.
The simple answer is that they don’t. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Liturgical texts require a much higher literacy skill set than a good proportion of the general population have acquired. Bayliss uses figures from two government studies (Skills for life (2003) and a follow up report in 2011). These showed 15% of the general adult population as functionally illiterate (5.5 million adults between 16 and 65) and another 29% (10.5 million adults) had literacy skills that limited their access to a significant amount of written material.
Bayliss argues that the Church, and inter alia for this purpose, liturgists should be cognizant of such literacy levels – and make prudent liturgical linguistic choices where such language might be in a register which is a barrier to mission, participation or understanding.
Needless to say, there have been some interesting responses:
“Do we just continue patronising people until the last pew is empty?”
“The purpose of liturgy is not to understand it but to undergo it.”
That last one is my favourite – simply because in so many ways I had subliminally misread it as “the purpose of liturgy is not to understand it, but to endure it” which might say quite a lot in and of itself…(sorry Fr, I loved your tweet, even if I didn’t agree with it).
In part, some heat is caused by the box in the original article reproduced as the picture at the top of this post: the sub-title given is just plain wrong. These are not words to be avoided, but rather “complex words that are hard to avoid”. Bayliss isn’t arguing that we should abandon difficult words (from a literacy point of view – and certainly not from a theological point of view). He argues that we should be attentive to when and how these words are used and what they mean in the context in which they are used. Madeleine Davies, Deputy News Editor at the Church Times has acknowledged (via Twitter) that it’s not quite right (well done!). But the sub may have contributed a touch of grist…
There are here, important points (amongst many more) worth thinking about, and a recurring hobby horse argument which comes up again and again:
- Do liturgical texts need to be intelligible (and if so, by whom)?
- How much of our faith do we learn in a liturgical church?
- Is the reductive argument (‘high brow’ v ‘dumbed down’) a sign of a typically middle class CofE perennial self-obsession?
These are issues I’ve grappled with through much of my priestly ministry, as those who know me will understand. For those who have read a previous post I serve in a UPA (a uniquely privileged area) and have served in a UPA (an Urban Priority Area). I also was a member of the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission for ten years (when I took a vow of silence on public utterances about liturgical questions that were contentious).
So I’m battle hardened in the “God, you liturgists do write prolix guff that no one can use” and “God, you liturgists to write simplistic tosh that’s dull and insulting” argument. It’s being going on for a long time. If the popular adage is that the difference between liturgists and terrorists is that you can negotiate with terrorists, then the motto for liturgists should be sive feceris sive minus, damnaberis aeque (better latinists than me will no doubt have a better translation of my intent). It’s nearly as good as the “I love the BCP/ASB/CW/Roman/Celtic/made-up, free-me-up and tie-me-down anything goes (as long as its allowed, or banned, by Canon) argument. This is playground stuff “my rite is better than your rite”. So there. *Blows raspberry*
So much for that, then. Now, hands up, who’s feeling their blood pressure rising?
Do we need to understand texts?
I think that depends on context. We encounter technical language in different setting each day. When I have my car serviced, I’m in a world where I admit I don’t fully understand the language. I don’t need to understand everything – I don’t need to understand how spark plugs or cam belts or carburettors function – I’m not a mechanic – but I do need some basic grasp of what’s going on if I am to make any sense of what a real mechanic is trying to tell me. If I go to the Doctor, it’s fine to say I have tingling pain in my thigh – I don’t have to say I have signs of paraparesis of the anterior femoral muscles. If I ever watch cricket, I have no idea what ‘silly mid off’ means, and I spent years wondering exactly what a ‘maiden over’ meant (believe me, I got quite inventive). I can still watch the match, and sip my pimms.
So I don’t need to necessarily understand every word or every nuance of what I read (or what I hear – more of that in a moment) but – and its a big but – if I don’t, then the less I comprehend, the greater the risk that I will misinterpret or assimilate a phrase because it sounds good (and clever) and then display my ignorance by inappropriately deploying the phase I’ve heard, but not understood.
Doug Chaplin sets out in his post that rightly, much of our texts are Presidential (I loathe that word, but there we are) as opposed to congregational. That’s spot on. He also makes the dig (well founded) that readability scores for the multi-clausal transliteration of the Sacramentary must be off the chart by comparison to Common Worship.
There is a truth here that is important. Part of the reaction to Bayliss is also to be found in the shift in Liturgiam Authenticam away from dynamic equivalence (translating the Latin into colloquial language, rather than a ‘formal equivalence’ which mirrors translation and syntax as closely as is possible). Which is preferable – an ‘as is spoken’ or a ‘technical’ translation will float different boats…
Hearing, in that sense and reading aren’t different categories. Doug is right I think to say that we obsess about books – but we obsess about screens too. We obsess about how people read, how names are pronounced, how to construct intercessions – because a lot of what we say is read, and if it is read, it is first written – and the words we write and the words we say aren’t different categories.
For if we don’t need to understand our liturgy, and just need to do it, why do we spend so long debating what it means?
Perhaps my greatest sin as a priest is believing that because I understand it, so does everyone else. And here is where I would want to take Doug’s proposition further. Sure, the congregation don’t read the texts I do (though they often have some if not all of them – because they may ‘cue’ their responses). But they comprehend something from what I say (and indeed how clearly or not I say it; the register I use; the emphasis I lend etc). Bayliss is, I think pointing out (from the original literacy researches) that ‘readability’ is also analogous to ‘comprehensibility’. Just because I comprehend it, doesn’t mean anyone else gets it – an error I make at my peril.
Yes there are times when the congregation ‘gets it’ far more than I think they do. But, lived experience over twenty years also tells me that the reverse is also very true – there are plenty of times they don’t. (A church warden was once very surprised to discover after decades of attendance that Jesus was the Son of God – when I’d spelt it out exceptionally clearly). That’s where a parish priest needs to know the congregation. In doing so we know when to ‘shift gear’ and learn there are gears between “incomprehensible” and “patronising git” and proper times to use all the gears available to us, rather than stick to one.
Yes – liturgical language is primarily addressed to God – but, liturgy also speaks to people. The words we use are formative, missional and educative. Liturgical language helps to form a theologically enabled people consciously and sub-consciously. The grammar we use in speaking to people has, at some level to be intelligible to those we’re addressing. I’m sure that (if someone helped) a sermon in latin would be great for some of my present congregation. I’m just pretty convinced that the other 98% would think me mad. In the same way, if I used an excessively limited vocabulary it would be extremely dull for either my present or my former congregation – that would be patronising to both – but might well be effective when I have to talk to a class of six year olds.
If I want to teach the faith (and part of that happens through the use of liturgical texts) then I have to use words which work, impart meaning, are clear, stretch people and engage a spread of people across the literacy and comprehensibility range. Lex orandi, lex credendi is a tenant of liturgical formation and theological orthodoxy – but only if we understand at least something of that which we are doing – with all the theological tensions and complexities that entails in a broad church. That’s different to my own personal tastes or otherwise.
And that’s the elephant in the room.
The priestly “I like”.
Now, this is where I think there’s a load of terrible pompous middle-class hand wringing nonsense going on (and oh boy, does this argument not sound like the typically self obsessed middle class church par excellence?). The belief that liturgical language isn’t proper if it isn’t booker standard prose (clickbait phrases are “dumbed down” “I can’t say that” “I refuse to say…” “reform of the reform” etc).
I don’t care if you don’t like this phrase or that phrase (there are phrases from the BCP to the latest Sacramentary and all stages in between that I think are good, bad and indifferent – hey, I’m an intolerant liturgist after all), what I care about is whatever the register and tone, is it theologically licit? Does it work? Does it feed God’s people? Does it praise God? I’m sure God can cope with the linguistic diversity.
It is quite right to say that The liturgy isn’t my personal play thing, even if that’s how I might treat it. But it is what the Church gives me to use – not what the Church gives me to completely re-write until it meets my own personal set of prejudices and preferences. If I don’t like it – then I have to work for the Church to change it and present good arguments for that change. And if the Church changes it so that more people can access it, rather than be baffled by it, then is that really the worst thing in the world? Article XXIV anyone?
Yes mystery and transcendence are important aspects of this – but if the complaint is that too much liturgy is facile chummyness, then the equal and opposite approach can be just as valid a ground for axe grinding.
“Ah, but we love memorable phrases, and the elegance of the prose of…” Oh, give me a rest. If liturgy is performative (it is), then there are times I have to remember I’m not Olivier in Hamlet. Believe me, I don’t think sloppy liturgy is good – but I get more cases of terrible giggles in church from clergy ‘doing’ liturgy as though they’ve finally clinched the sixth form drama group lead role…
Bayliss’ article repays careful reading. I think he has important things to say – that we need to hear. Not every place or context, parish or priest is the ‘target’. But some places would do well to carefully consider how intelligible or not our language has become – and why. Language shifts. We evolve. We may like that, we may resist that. Forsooth, I verily say unto thee, dear dear one, of the writing of books there shall be no end.
Words matter. Meaning matters. Liturgy matters – because we speak about God. Or to use the motto of the RSCM, “I will sing with the spirit and with the understanding also”. As Christians is it too much to think we might pray with the spirit, and with a bit of understanding too? However and whatever the language we need to make that happen? It’s not a competition.
Happy new year!
PS. If we spent as much time arguing about the need to improve adult literacy as we do about nuanced liturgical points, would the world be a better place?